“Be Different” isn’t a Catholic book, isn’t a Christian book, and isn’t a spiritual book. This is a book about a man who struggled his whole life to make friends and to fit in and finally was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 40. His story awed me and reminded me how God has created us all with immeasurable love.
I bought John Elder Robison’s audio book Thursday afternoon at a Barnes and Noble near the public high school where I teach. By Friday evening, I had listened to the entire six hours of it while driving the family minivan. So you have a sense of how much driving I do, as well as how compelling I found Robison’s tales. He narrates his own audio book, which gave me an even more vivid sense of his life – how he struggled to understand the world beyond his own thoughts and feelings.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism, a neurological disability. Chances are, someone in your family, or neighborhood, or circle of friends, is autistic; the rate is rising annually. (Recent American Idol contestant James Durbin has Asperger’s Syndrome) No one really knows whether the actual rates are climbing or whether we are doing a better job at diagnosing this disability. In any event, the book was a wonder to me. With dry wit and brutal honesty, Robison takes us on a tour of his Aspergian brain. While he never mentions his spirituality, the book left me in awe of how God creates such wondrous creatures as humans.
How easy it is to shrug off the complexities of life as a human. That is, until you know someone for whom these skills are a struggle. That certainly was the case with one of our sons, who struggled to make intelligible speech, and later, to read. His social skills, however, are far better than mine and his abiity to read social cues is well beyond his yers. For his part, Robison tells us how he spent years misunderstanding facial expressions and mistranslating social rules and yet had great success in teaching himself how to repair cars and invent sound systems for rock bands.
I was wowed by the intensity with which Robison persisted in his efforts to face and cope with his disability. His hope, his persistence in the face of what might appear unbeatable odds, to me is a grace. And I was awed by the gifts Robison possesses because of, he believes, not in spite of, living with an Aspergian brain.
Despite considerable difficulties in his social life, Robison, who dropped out of high school in tenth grade and never returned to school, became the sound advisor to both Pink Floyd and KISS, for whom he created their rocket-launching laser guitars. He also worked for toymaker Milton Bradley, designing electronic games. Now he runs one of the country’s largest independent Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Bentley specialty repair shops. He writes: “I believe those of us with Asperger’s are here for a reason, and we have much to offer. This book will help you bring out those gifts.”
It is miraculous to me that people born with disabilities in one area are blessed with exceptional abilities in another. While I imagine my friends who are atheists might consider this attribute a compensatory adaptation that happened as humans evolved, I see the hand of God in this. Speaking of our own son, despite his fierce struggles with learning, he’s been blessed with an amazing ability to think on his feet and to conceptualize problems in three dimensions. That makes him a fearsome soccer goalie because he can foresee several plays ahead and then position himself in just the right spot to stop a goal.
Who brings us these gifts? St. James the Apostle tells us: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. “